Ode On A Grecian Urn Poem by John Keats Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ is a poem written by John Keats. As the title suggests, it is in tribute to a Grecian urn and pays homage to its, and by extension, all of beauty. 

About the Poet:

John Keats (1795-1821) was an eminent English Poet. He was a notable Romantic, attaining fame after his death at the age of 25 owing to tuberculosis. Famous works of his include ‘To Autumn’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.  


This poem is divided into 5 stanzas consisting of 10 lines each. Each stanza consists of a quatrain and a sestet written in iambic pentameter. 

Analysis and Summary:

Stanza 1:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,

       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape

       Of deities or mortals, or of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?


The first stanza begins with the persona addressing the Grecian urn. They describe it using various names, including ‘unravish’d bride of quietness’ and ‘Sylvan historian’. The persona goes on to muse about the images on the urn, about the men and gods and the ‘wild ecstasy’ etched on their forms.


Sylvan historian here refers to the urn revealing the history through its ‘tale’ spun with vivid images. Keats here creates several paradoxical images here which are juxtaposed together– “quietness” and the “Sylvan historian” who can speak, “silence” and “wild ecstasy”. Keats thus brings alive the still life present on the urn. 

Stanza 2:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


The persona then goes on to talk about the sweetness of the melody that is unheard in the urn. “Fair youth” in the urn stay there, unable to leave under trees that will never be “bare”. Lovers never kiss and remain in love. 


The paradox between what is heard and unheard continues here. The music in the urn is “unheard” as the music is a pictorial representation within the urn. The trees on the urn can never be barren and the lovers present will never be able to kiss, frozen in love that is forever. A dichotomy between action and inaction can thus be observed here.

Stanza 3:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

         For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

                For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


Again, the boughs will be evergreen in the urn. Songs will always remain fresh and love and passion will remain forever fresh and cloyingly sweet. 


The central paradox observed previously continues here with imagery of fresh trees and boughs, reinstating how deathlessness can be seen to be achieved only through lifelessness. The phrase “warm and still” can be perceived as an innuendo as well in the context of love.

Stanza 4:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.


The fourth stanza expresses a notion of happiness and joy. However, this image is immediately contrasted with the imagery of an empty town devoid of its people. 


The image of a procession is described here. Thus, although the procession seems to be the predominant image here, the townspeople who have left for the procession are to be observed. What has been left unsaid hence holds significant importance- loneliness.

Stanza 5:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

         When old age shall this generation waste,

                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."


Here, the persona states how the urn’s ‘silent form’ brings one away from their thoughts very much like an eternity does. The poem ends with the urn stating the most quoted life of Keats– ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.


In this final stanza, the urn itself is personified. Even when old age destroys everything on Earth, it will not touch the urn. Again, a dichotomy is evoked, contrasting lifelessness and deathlessness. This is a reference to itself for the beauty of the urn also brings out the truth of the world, making them both one and the same. 


This is a beautiful poem. Keats captures the concept of life and death in close association with beauty, bringing forth an ode much debated in the literary world.